It is strange when you read articles about Stephen Jones, in which he is made notable for having built up a mass of recordings either officially released or self-released (and not including hours of unreleased material), when he is one of many artists (me included) for whom this is true. When you look at the history of Stephen Jones and his aliases: Babybird, Black Reindeer and Arthritis Kid to name a few, you notice that he released albums a lot quicker when not signed to a label. And this is what is great and also terrible about the hoards of unsigned songwriters; they produce incessantly and release without consideration, and as such any inherent value is lost. But there is value here in Babybird’s world.. in places.
I guess the difficulty is that in this scenario decisions are generally made by fewer and fewer people. As a solo artist it is a democracy of one and so quality control is done in house and there is no one to say if something is in need of more work, or changes are necessary. It is a case of warts and all, but at least it is not manufactured and it is very honest: and here is where the beauty lies — an artist’s intentions are passed direct to the listener without the dreaded ‘drooling little midrange accountants’ as Zappa described them, getting in the way. Sure there is freedom, but I would argue that if you make music with only yourself in mind, you may only end up satisfying yourself. Stephen Jones’ Babybird manages to tread a fine line between self-indulgence, rank amateurishness and sublime heart-breaking artistry.
Stephen Jones has just released a new Babybird album ‘Photosynthesis’, which as well as your usual digital downloads is available as special limited edition vinyl and CD through RW/FF and via his Bandcamp page. It is a ten track album that is as infuriating as it is beautiful. I guess my main criticism is that it is an album that feels like these 10 songs have been thrown together without thought of flow or progression. There is almost a random play shuffle quality to it, as if the song order is of no consequence. And the thing is you never know whether Jones’ product is the result of post-modern deliberation into breaking down structures and conventions, or if he genuinely does not have a clue what the hell he is doing. In some ways, no, in a lot of ways, I love that. I love the fact that I have to work out whether I like what I am listening to based on what it is I am hearing, rather than its place in a song cycle, whether it is jarring or uncomfortable or fitting. I found myself listening to the album, and having to reset my position, opinion and judgements at the start of every track.
I do wonder why an instrumental track, ‘Black Friday Jesus Tuesday’, was placed between two trip hop songs, in which Jones raps in an accent/voice so believable I initially thought he had a guest vocalist (‘Cave In’ and ‘Perfect Suburbian Clone’), only to be followed by another instrumental ‘Creation Destroys Science’ before closing the album with the sublime vocal track ‘Yeah I’m In Hollywood’. It does almost feel like a two part album, maybe the vinyl release was in mind, but the first five songs and the second five seem almost disconnected from each other somehow. I understand that the songs and their track order were not Jones’ doing but RW/FF Recordings, and I have a lot of respect for them so will put this down to a difference of opinion in methods – from a listener/label perspective.
For me, the first half of the album is more cohesive and more powerful. Songs like ‘Beach Grave’ and ‘No Cameras’ are underproduced, understated works of extreme sensitivity and beauty. Jones is an expert at setting a scene lyrically and this is his best work. I still believe the production could be improved but at the same time I love his approach to recording, which I believe is quick and not laboured – he certainly captures an honest intensity that would be lost if he spent months worrying whether he should really end a song with a looped drum sample or is overusing the vocal delay.
‘Photosynthesis’ is a great album and I am so pleased to see Babybird are venturing a small way from their safe home within Bandcamp. It is also heartwarming to see Stephen Jones will tour to promote this release and he visits Birmingham’s Hare and Hounds on 28 November, which will be unmissable. You will have to leave your preconceptions at the door however, and anyone waiting to hear the band’s biggest hits may be in for a nasty surprise as I have read that he has little time for the ‘Ugly Beautiful’ period of their career, particularly ‘that’ song, which renders Babybird in the one hit wonder category for most of the populace. Jones and I do agree on something, that “You’re Gorgeous” (the single version) is a pile of poo. I remember hating it initially for its chorus and then loving it for its verses (the absolute opposite reaction to most people) and then loving more the acoustic slow version that appeared as a B-side on ‘Candy Girl’, which has Stephen’s softer voice in the chorus, and by being more beautiful is almost darker than the pop version. The ‘Ugly Beautiful’ album is however, worth a revisit even if it is only for the quite brilliant ’45 and Fat’ – I hope he still plays this live. I also wonder why a certain brand of fizzy drink haven’t ever asked to use the chorus for their own wicked purposes.. maybe they did and were denied.
I had the pleasure of interviewing another mis-labelled ‘one hit wonder’, Colin Vearncombe a few years before his tragic passing in 2016, who similarly had an enormous hit help and hinder his music career, and it is good to remember that a songwriter makes music like everyone else takes a breath, but it is more than instinctive, a writer’s world is channelled through a filter, where words and melodies are captured, filed and possibly used at a later date to build a song. Sometimes, with a fluke, or accident, or marketing budget, these songs may reach a larger audience, but generally just live as ones and zeros on a hard drive, or at best make it to Bandcamp. Stephen Jones in all his incarnations is an artist first and foremost with an original way of looking at the world and a distinctive way of singing about it – sometimes this resonates with a larger audience and sometimes not, but I think the world is a better place for having him still actively making and releasing his music.
I have in the past loved and loathed Stephen Jones, been fascinated and fed up with him: I didn’t mind when he failed to respond to my email in 2011, when I asked him to contribute his voice to my album; I didn’t mind when he used the title ‘NOT POP’ after I had been using ‘unpop’ to describe my work since 2012; I don’t mind that he is bestowed the honour of being crowned the king of lo-fi and home recording as if no one else is doing it; I don’t mind that he has been spared 20 years of holding down an office job whilst making music, like the rest of us, and can record and release music when he wants; I don’t even mind he is accidental buddies with the genius behind the portrayal of Edward Davis Wood Jr. I don’t mind that sometimes his voice makes me shudder like wine from a box, or at times his music appears to be unfinished or not properly thought out. I don’t mind all this, because Stephen Jones AKA Babybird, despite all the good things and all the bad, does not stop. Resilience and doggedness, persistence and stubbornness are qualities I hold in high regard. If you want evidence of his staggering back catalogue and genius, visit his Bandcamp page, put on the kettle and put up your feet, you may be there a while.
Babybird’s new album ‘Photosynthesis’ is out now…click here.
Tour Dates – November 2019
Friday 15th — Exchange, Bristol
Thursday 21st — The 100 Club, London
Friday 22nd — Brudenell, Leeds
Thursday 28th — Hare & Hounds, Birmingham
Friday 29th — Deaf Institute, Manchester
Reviewer: Alan Neilson